Olympics reunite ex-UConn star Diana Taurasi, Geno Auriemma
Diana Taurasi can't help but enter the conversation. Geno Auriemma is explaining a hypothetical: if he coached against Rutgers, and could only bring one player to face their five, who would it be?
Taurasi throws out a couple names from past University of Connecticut teams. Each suggestion garners a "(Expletive) no," from Auriemma. Auriemma says he needs someone who can do everything, and would build around that. He would use the same approach if FIBA pushes 3-on-3 into the Olympics. Which is why he would choose Taurasi first for that. Naturally, it's the answer she expected.
Even if they weren't linked by shared history, Taurasi and Auriemma would appear a fit pair. Each struts around sure it can kick your behind in basketball. The language used is often blue, especially by Taurasi, and open mics in front of each can make media relations folks shudder.
They have immigrant backgrounds. Confidence teetering on cockiness. A self-assured level that allows each to speak honestly, the directness all the more shocking when dispatched in the current varnished sports world.
Plus, the talent. Both carry expansive accomplishments in women's basketball. Fate folded them together for four years at UConn during which the team went 139-8. Ongoing ability has them as the firebrands of the 2012 U.S. women's Olympic basketball team; Auriemma the fresh coach, Taurasi the best player on the best team on the planet. Here they are, reunited partners in stubbornness covered in red, white and blue.
"She thinks she's the smartest person in the room all the time, and so do I," Auriemma said. "She thinks she's always right, and so do I."
In Seattle for the Olympic team's three-day mini-camp, Taurasi is asked if ongoing dominance by one team or one country -- the U.S. will be after a record fifth consecutive gold medal in London -- is bad for the sport.
"I don't give a (expletive)," Taurasi said. "I'm trying to win a gold medal. I don't care about anything else."
They share that approach this summer, too.
Despite the 28-year age difference, their relationship has leveled. The mental pummeling Taurasi endured as an 18-year-old at Connecticut is over.
"When we're together, something's got to give," Auriemma said. "When she was 18, I win, you lose. Now? She wins, and I lose."
Auriemma's ease of concession is surprising. It's not a duo known for capitulation.
"I got to say that because I need her for the next month," Auriemma said with a laugh. "Check with me after August."
When Taurasi arrived at Storrs in 2000, she swaggered onto campus believing she was the best player on a team that won the national title the year before without her.
On her official visit, Taurasi showed the Auriemmas a peak behind her brash armor. She played H-O-R-S-E with their 10-year-old son, Michael. It was natural, Taurasi charming like she can be, taking on this kid. After allowing a slim lead, Taurasi turned it on to assure a win. It was cute and all, but she wasn't about to lose to a pre-teen or anyone else.
The endearing moment preceded an embattled freshman season. Auriemma pushed. Hard.
"If you're great, I'm not the easiest guy in the world to play for, because you're not going to get away with it," Auriemma said. "For Diana, I was never going to allow her to cheat her talent.
"I got it to a point, where I really don't care what you think, because four years from now, when you leave, you're going to appreciate it. Kind of like raising your own kids, you know? 'Why I got to do this?' Because I said so."
Taurasi turned to Auriemma's wife, Kathy, for counsel and belief. Taurasi once stopped by the Auriemma's home with a teammate and was informed Geno was not there. She said she knew, and that was why she came.
"My first year, we clashed a lot," Taurasi said. "We were so much alike, that neither of us wanted to give. And ... I gave in. Tortured to give in."
Senior star Svetlana Abrosimova broke a bone in her foot in February that season at rival Tennessee. On the bus out of Knoxville filled with mope, and the reality of Abrosimova's injury understood, Auriemma turned to Kathy.
"Diana's going to get us to the Final Four."
She went on a six-week tear. Coupled with other UConn stars, like Sue Bird, Taurasi dragged the Huskies into a national semifinal against Notre Dame. They lost a 16-point lead. She flopped in her most important game, scoring just four points on 1-for-15 shooting. After she fouled out, Auriemma, in a rare act, went to a knee and consoled her on the bench.
Their next discussion was a year-end meeting where Auriemma drilled Taurasi about her shortcomings.
"I think that rattled her," Kathy Auriemma said.
An iron-fisted run of back-to-back-to-back NCAA titles followed, with a 70-game winning streak blended in. Taurasi stockpiled awards and was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2004 WNBA draft by the Phoenix Mercury. She's set the single-season league scoring record, won two titles and is an annual All-Star in the WNBA.
Exiting a drill on the first day of camp in Seattle, Taurasi caught two fellow Olympians off guard. Even though it was the last half hour of a mid-May practice in a cramped gym, she came off and high-fived all teammates on the sideline.
This is how she plays. Energetic, engaged, encompassing others. It's also how Auriemma coaches.
The discussion about FIBA's push to get 3-on-3 basketball into the Olympics makes Taurasi chuckle. After all, she has three little title plaques from a trio of California beaches that held 3-on-3 tournaments when she was a teenager.
"Hoop it up? Is it by the beach? I'll go play in that," Taurasi said. "Are they going to put a free-throw contest in it, too? Three-point shootout? Skills challenge? I might go the Michael Phelps, go for five gold medals. You want do that? Put me in each one."
Were those events to exist, Auriemma would ask Taurasi what she thought. This is evolution from their Connecticut conversations.
"When you're 18, how am I going to ask you when you don't even know what I'm talking about?" Auriemma wondered.
It's an adjustment Auriemma has made since taking over the national team. This Olympic team -- the most talented and deepest on the planet -- has six former UConn players on its 11-person roster.
"The questions at UConn, weren't really questions," Taurasi said. "It was more of a rhetorical, abusive question."
Taurasi's chance for her third gold medal almost didn't reach this point of give-and-take. A false-positive test for a banned substance while playing in Turkey in 2010 nearly derailed everything. Taurasi says she's never taken anything illegal, and the lab admitted it screwed up, then was stripped of its accreditation. She almost lost basketball.
"I don't know how that makes a person feel," Kathy Auriemma said. "It's devastating. She's not a casual person, she feels things very deeply. She cares and she loves strongly, and I think she was very lost [afterward]."
There have been other bumps. A year prior Taurasi was arrested for DUI. Her on-court fits, like throwing down a second-place medal after losing the Russia Pro Basketball League title game, sully the view of her talent.
There's also the swearing. It's constant, rapid-fire and loud, especially toward officials. When she fouled out of Game 3 against the Seattle Storm in the first round of last season's WNBA playoffs, television cameras beamed out her illicit tirade as she left the court. Taming Taurasi's tongue would require an expanse of ambitious nuns with a surplus of rulers.
"There is time for restraint," Geno Auriemma said. "The thing that makes you great, ahhh, gets you in trouble once in a while.
"The filter between her brain and her mouth sometimes gets clogged, and it doesn't work. Little by little, it's working better."
If there is an issue, Taurasi still calls Geno Auriemma no matter where she is on the planet or topic.
It's a common relationship progression powered by advancing age. But, it's underpinnings were there from the start as part of a recruiting pitch. Auriemma told Taurasi he had lived her life, one of duping immigrant parents who didn't know better.
"But, you're not going to get away with that (expletive) with me," Auriemma said. "You can lie to some other people, but you're not going to lie to me. And, I always told her the truth.
"Now, she looks back, and because she's Diana Taurasi, because of how much money they pay her and because of her reputation, coaches sometimes are a little bit reluctant to tell her the truth. And, I'm not. And, I think she appreciates that."
In the least, it resonates. A dozen years have passed since Taurasi arrived at Storrs and began banging heads with Auriemma. She was nervous in the huddle with him then, and still is. In the summer of 2012, they're teamed under the drape of national colors, but Taurasi is still trying to prove herself to Auriemma.
"We have to make him believe in us," Taurasi said. "I have to prove to him every day on the court that I'm who he thinks I am. And that will never change with him, it never will."
At times, Auriemma didn't know what to make of Taurasi's decisions. He knew her talent and soul, yet stood concerned while running his Connecticut kingdom. Auriemma thought Taurasi let certain things dig into her instead of being discarded. But their bond was firm.
"What makes her great, is she has no fear of anything or anybody," Auriemma said. "At the same time, it causes you to make some bad decisions. I would venture to say because of some of the bad decisions she's made, she turned out to be who she is. And, I wouldn't trade her for anybody in the world going into these games."
In fact, he'd probably take her first.